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THERE are some opinions in which a man should stand neuter without engaging his assent to one side or the other. Such a hovering faith as this, which refuses to settle upon any determination, is absolutely necessary in a mind that is careful to avoid errors and preposses- 5 sions. When the arguments press equally on both sides in matters that are indifferent to us, the safest method is to give up ourselves to neither.
It is with this temper of mind that I consider the subject of witchcraft. When I hear the relations that are made from all parts of the world, not only from Norway and Lapland, from the East and West Indies, but from every particular nation in Europe, I cannot forbear thinking that there is such an intercourse and commerce with evil spirits, as that which we express by 15 the name of witchcraft. But when I consider that the ignorant and credulous parts of the world abound the most in these relations, and that the persons among us who are supposed to engage in such an infernal commerce are people of a weak understanding and crazed imag- 20 ination, and at the same time reflect upon the many
impostures and delusions of this nature that have been detected in all ages, I endeavour to suspend my belief till I hear more certain accounts than any which have yet come to my knowledge. In short, when I consider 5 the question, whether there are such persons in the world, as those we call witches, my mind is divided between the two opposite opinions ; or rather (to speak my thoughts freely) I believe in general that there is
and has been such a thing as witchcraft; but at the same 10 time can give no credit to any particular instance of it.
I am engaged in this speculation, by some occurrences that I met with yesterday, which I shall give my reader an account of at large. As I was walking with my
friend Sir Roger by the side of one of his woods, an old woman 15 applied herself to me for my charity. Her dress and
figure put me in mind of the following description in Otway.
“In a close lane as I pursued my journey,
30 As I was musing on this description, and comparing
it with the object before me, the knight told me, that this very old woman had the reputation of a witch all over the country, that her lips were observed to be always in motion, and that there was not a switch about her house which her neighbours did not believe had carried her several hundreds of miles. If she chanced 5 to stumble, they always found sticks or straws that lay in the figure of a cross before her. If she made any mistake at church, and cried Amen in a wrong place, they never failed to conclude that she was saying her prayers backwards. There was not a maid in the parish 10 that would take a pin of her, though she should offer a bag of money with it. She goes by the name of Moll White, and has made the country ring with several imaginary exploits that are palmed upon her. If the dairy-maid does not make her butter come so soon as 15 she would have it, Moll White is at the bottom of the churn. If a horse sweats in the stable, Moll White has been upon his back. If a hare makes an unexpected escape from the hounds, the huntsman curses Moll White. Nay (says Sir Roger) I have known the master 20 of the pack, upon such an occasion, send one of his servants to see if Moll White had been out that morning.
This account raised my curiosity so far, that I begged my friend Sir Roger to go with me into her hovel, which stood in a solitary corner under the side of the wood. 25 Upon our first entering Sir Roger winked to me, and pointed at something that stood behind the door, which, upon looking that way, I found to be an old broomstaff. At the same time he whispered me in the ear to take notice of a tabby cat that sat in the chimney corner, 39 which, as the old knight told me, lay under as bad a
report as Moll White herself; for besides that Moll is said often to accompany her in the same shape, the cat is reported to have spoken twice or thrice in her life, and to have played several pranks above the capacity of 5 an ordinary cat.
I was secretly concerned to see human nature in so much wretchedness and disgrace, but at the same time could not forbear smiling to hear Sir Roger, who is a
little puzzled about the old woman, advising her, as a 10 justice of the peace, to avoid all communication with the
devil, and never to hurt any of her neighbours' cattle. We concluded our visit with a bounty, which was very acceptable.
In our return home, Sir Roger told me that old Moll 15 had been often brought before him for making children
spit pins, and giving maids the night mare; and that the country people would be tossing her into a pond, and trying experiments with her every day, if it was not for him and his chaplain.
I have since found upon inquiry, that Sir Roger was several times staggered with the reports that had been brought him concerning this old woman, and would frequently have bound her over to the county sessions,
had not his chaplain with much ado persuaded him to 25 the contrary.
I have been the more particular in this account, because I hear there is scarce a village in England that has not a Moll White in it. When an old woman begins
to dote and grow chargeable to a parish, she is generally 30 turned into a witch, and fills the whole country with
extravagant fancies, imaginary distempers, and terrify.